2 August 2019
By Tim Koch
In January, a press release from Henley Royal Regatta officially confirmed something that had been quietly talked about in rowing circles for some time:
In commemoration of the centenary of the 1919 Royal Henley Peace Regatta, Military VIIIs will once again compete against each other at Henley Royal Regatta after a one hundred year hiatus. For the first time, male and female military athletes will row in the same boat at an elite international event. The King’s Cup will see crews from the original six nations of Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, the UK and the USA, joined by Germany and the Netherlands, competing in a knock-out format over the final three days of the 2019 Henley Royal Regatta.
Sir Steve Redgrave, Chairman of the Regatta’s Committee of Management, said: ‘The Regatta is delighted to host such an important commemoration. The 1919 Royal Henley Peace Regatta was a key milestone in our sport and was staged by the rowing community to help heal wounds and hasten the return to normality of the Allied nations and their troops recovering from the First World War….’
Chris Hartley, who coordinated the international participation, said in January: ‘The 2019 King’s Cup campaign has been several years in the making and has strong support from all eight nations…’ When the event was publicly announced, this same level of enthusiasm and excitement soon grew amongst the ordinary supporters of the Regatta. The reasons for the mass appeal of the Centenary Race are multifold and probably included the unique chance to see a ‘one-off’ event; to be able to witness much military and rowing ceremonial; to be able to honour both the survivors and the casualties of the Great War, notably those from the ‘rowing family’; and the opportunity to see races where no one had any idea of the speed and abilities of the crews until they actually chased each other down the Henley course. Also, the comradeship that exists between all members of the armed forces, plus the friendly but fierce rivalry that inevitably exists between military units, both undoubtedly added to the very special atmosphere that grew up around the 2019 King’s Cup.
As both the military and Henley Royal Regatta know how to put on a show, it was inevitable that some great ‘photo opportunities were generated.
The Australian Defence Force beat Nederlandse Krijgsmacht, Netherlands, by 4 lengths in a time of 6 minutes 53 seconds.
Some of the Dutch crew had only started rowing in February so when they came up against the more experienced Australians, the race was decided very early on. When pushed, the ADF performance was always going to be difficult to predict because they were so passionately invested in winning the event and in honouring the 1919 crew that there was a good chance they would achieve that sporting cliché of ‘giving 110 per cent’.
Bundeswehr, Germany, beat the New Zealand Defence Force by 2 lengths in a time of 6 minutes 55 seconds.
Not long into the race between Germany and New Zealand, it seemed likely that the powerful Bundeswehr would be a crew to bet on to reach the final. Their Kiwi opponents, as the commentator said, were ‘fairly novice’ – but they should be commended for entering a mixed army/navy/airforce crew in the true spirit of the event.
The United States Armed Forces beat the Canadian Armed Forces by 3 2/3 lengths in a time of 7 minutes 10 seconds.
Though the Americans recorded the slowest time of the heats, they were never pushed by the Canadians and wound down before the finish (the commentator noted that ‘We have some quite new rowers to the sport in the Canadian crew…’). It was clear to most observers that the U.S. form indicated that they would be finalists, if not the ultimate winners.
Forces Armées Françaises, France, beat the United Kingdom Armed Forces by 3/4 length in a time of 6 minutes 41 seconds.
Of the Anglo-French race, Row360 wrote:
The best race of the four quarterfinals was that between the French and British, in which (the French) led the UK Armed Forces almost the whole way, but only narrowly, with a brief patch around Fawley when it looked as if the UK might squeeze through.
The end of Friday’s heats for the King’s Cup gave the towpath pundits something to work with for the first time. As the draw worked out, what turned out to be the three strongest crews (United States, Germany and Australia) each met one of the three weakest crews (Canada, New Zealand, Netherlands). The British and the French were the most evenly matched in the heats though neither seemed finalist material.
Bundeswehr, Germany, beat the Australian Defence Force by 1 1/4 lengths in a time of 6 minutes 27 seconds.
Germany got a slight lead in the first 250 metres but had to fight all the way to keep it, the ADF never giving up and making a big push passing Upper Thames. There was clear water only in the last forty-seconds. The Bundeswehr may have been technically superior and with a 17 pound / 7.7 kg per person weight advantage but no crew in the King’s Cup wanted to win more than the Australians.
The United States Armed Forces beat the Forces Armées Françaises, France by 3 1/4 lengths in a time of 6 minutes 32 seconds.
THE SUNDAY FINAL
The United States Armed Forces beat the Bundeswehr, Germany, by 3/4 length in a time of 6 minutes 33 seconds.
The final of the King’s Cup was a great race between the two best crews that originally entered. It was a race that more than justified the time, hard work and expense that was necessary to make the Centenary King’s Cup happen.
The United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, educates officers for commissioning primarily into the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps. Hubbard Hall, aka ‘The Boat House’, is the historic home of the Academy’s rowing teams. This year is the 150th Anniversary of the U.S. Navy Rowing program so it was appropriate that the representatives of the United States Armed Forces at the 2019 King’s Cup should have been chosen from Hubbard Hall.
All three Navy crew programs (women, heavyweight men and lightweight men) completed their collegiate seasons at the end of May (the women at the NCAA Championship in Indianapolis and the heavyweight and lightweight men at the IRA National Championships in Sacramento, California). Following those regattas, the coaching staffs of all three teams met and made their selections from the two hundred cadets in the programme. Two lightweights were put in the stern, two women in the bows and four heavyweights in the middle.
The website navysports.com summarised the history of the Navy Crew in international competition:
The Naval Academy’s crew program has a long and storied history of success in international competition dating back nearly 100 years, when the (Midshipmen’s) first varsity eight crew was selected to represent the United States at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. Navy was selected twice more as the United States’ Men’s 8+ representative in Olympic competition as they suited up at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland and the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. That 1952 crew, known as the “Great Eight” went on to defeat the Soviet Union for the gold medal. During their run as collegiate athletes, the “Great Eight” won 23 consecutive races and back-to-back IRA Varsity Eight Championships.
The German Federal Defence Forces do not have a rowing programme and so had to make up a crew from serving and reserve men and women with rowing experience. Perhaps their best recruit was Tim Grohmann, ‘5’ in the German boat, who won Gold in the quad at London 2012. The stroke man, Lars Wichert, finished 9th in the lightweight mens four at Rio 2016. While the crew average weight was 14 st 3 lbs / 199 lbs / 90 kg, the ‘3’ man weighed 15 st 4 lbs / 214 lbs / 97 kg, ‘4’ was 16 st 7 lbs / 231 lbs / 105 kg, ‘5’ was 16 st 1 lb / 224 lbs / 102 kgs and ‘7’ was 16 st 9 lbs / 223 lbs / 106 kg.
The King’s Cup final started at 3 pm, a time usually reserved for the prestigious Grand Challenge Cup. By the end of the island, the Germans had got their bow in front and maintained a lead of somewhere between a canvas and a quarter of a length for the first four minutes. However, the Americans maintained their rhythm and, when the German’s fitness began to fail at Remenham with 700 metres to go, Navy made their move and went slightly in front. The U.S. lead was small until the Stewards’ Enclosure when they began to move away to the 3/4 length advantage that they had over the finish line. The difference between rowers who had been competing all season and those who had only recently got back into training ultimately showed.
Row360 wrote ‘The pinnacle of emotion came in the prime-slot 3pm King’s Cup, and it was a brilliant race, outstripping some of the supposedly better contests’.
After the final, the Henley Standard quoted Manriki Gagnon, ‘7’ in the U.S. crew, as saying ‘It is an honour just to be racing at Henley Royal Regatta…. It means even more to me having all the ties back to the 1919 crew, it is an amazing experience. The USA didn’t do nearly as well (last time) but it’s because this time they sent the navy instead of the army’.
In the words of the Henley Standard, ‘both crews acquitted themselves admirably and gave the crowds something very special to watch in the process’.